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Buzz off! International Aid “Beneficiaries”

March 17, 2011

Developmentspeak, NGOish – the language of the international aid community has several names. And it is easily recognizable: its building blocks are largely buzzwords – these woolly concepts that slip between your fingers but have managed to percolate into every corner of the aid world. Rhetorically it is wise to use them with an ironic distance, yet use them you must. What put my mind on this was a recent language column in the Economist. It told a cute but disturbing anecdote of a Dinka woman in soon-to-be independent South Sudan.

The January referendum had prompted her to declare: “I feel like a stakeholder now!”

Mostly gibberish to outsiders, the use of international development buzzwords becomes freakishly habitual to insiders. And next, they are often internalized by the objects of donor affection themselves. As in a Gramscian cultural hegemony, the ideas of the ruling class become the accepted and unopposed norm in the whole development community.

How do donors talk about their objects of intervention? For decades, and especially in the NGO-world, they have held the dubious title of “beneficiaries”, though increasingly as of late, “stakeholders”. In a casual game of Buzzword Bingo at an aid community gathering, both phrases would score you high points. By naming the people you bestow your assistance upon, you retain the power to position them in the aid chain. And the power of the gift-giver is not likely to be turned on its head in some Hosni Mubarak-fashion any time soon. The age-old tradition of donors setting the development agenda continues uninhibited, and language and labels often turn out to be most useful tools in getting one’s way.

“Beneficiary” = the one who benefits? Turn it upside down – are the beneficiaries entitled to anything from the donor; can they make any claims; do they have any rights? No, because by naming the recipients beneficiaries, we are talking about charity and not systemic change. Passive recipients are not given the means to help themselves. If we were to place donors and beneficiaries in a diagram or illustration (development agencies love diagrams – watch their people beam when you give them a piece of paper with blobs and arrows), you can easily imagine who would be at the top and bottom. Do you think the beneficiaries are visible from up there?

Reflecting the slightly nauseating inequalities embedded in the term, it is today often referred to as a thing of the past. Notably since the 1980’s, the nature of people’s “participation” (Buzzword Bingo score of ∞) has changed. It has come to mean more than just the involvement of people, in activities initiated by outside agents. Rather, it should encourage and generate self-reliance. Accordingly, “stakeholder” is a term being used with exponentially increasing frequency. It is a broader category than “beneficiaries”, and carries fewer connotations of helplessness and passivity. Though as with most buzzwords, the intentional vagueness allows the donor to shape its meaning.

One of many cases in point: In designing a development project, a fairly destitute country’s officials were discussing with donors how to go about in reducing their rate of poverty. They wanted to know exactly what was taking place ‘on the ground’, and decided to consult with a whole range of “stakeholders” about their ideal state, priorities, and pursuits. They want to know what people want – what an exceptionally participatory process! And stakeholders were to include (as the word would make you believe) anyone with a stake in the project. But come the time for consultations and asked whether rural district officials’ advice should be sought, one representative declared: “better not involve them, these are just guys who do our menial tasks”. Better leave it to the experts, in other words.That is degradation from stakeholder to beneficiary if I have ever heard one.

So the talk is there, but the proverbial walk is often absent. “Beneficiaries” are indeed still highly present and alive – in the language of donors and recipients alike. I know aid workers who cringe at the word, yet force their fingers to type it into their grant applications. Just two days ago saw it being used in a UN job advertisement. Beneficiaries are easy to deal with. They are not in a position to make any demands; they are depoliticized. They produce tangible project outputs – 500 teachers have been trained, 3,000 women are provided with HIV medication. And while the slow substitution of words and labels is encouraging, too often “stakeholders” in name become “beneficiaries” in nature.

If you want to know more:

  • Read the Economist column that inspired the piece here.
  • A little rusty on your theories of hegemony?  Here‘s Emory University’s cliff notes version of Gramsci.
  • Deconstructing Development Discourse, Buzzwords and Fuzzwords, a delightful review of 27 development buzzwords, with a chapter dedicated to each one. Downloadable for free, compliments of Oxford GB here.
  • If you ever consider entering the field, watch this animated take on development work: “I want to be an aid worker (when do I get to meet Bono?)”

Astrid Øksnevad holds a MSc in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.  She recently finished consulting on a UN project “ICT for Development” for Rwanda.

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